Everyone has their own image of Paradise – and let’s face it – palm trees, sunshine, beaches and lush forest would go a fair way towards most of our dreams. Bali has all this – but it has something more too. Bali has Soul.
The gentle plonk-plonking of the gamelan, the shimmer of a metal headpiece worn by a bejewelled dancer, the rustle of a breeze through feathery treetops, the crashing of a wave against a rock-built temple, the gentle spices of a Warung-cooked dish of fish and rice – Bali is the place to daydream, far away from a chilly Scottish January. It’s the rainy season just now, but the temperatures are balmy and the rain pleasant between openings of warm sunshine.
Balinese temples are stunning, and make fabulous places to wander around, even if sightseeing’s not top of a New Year’s relaxation list. At the most famous, Tanah Lot, a couple of the shrines are built onto tiny islands in the sea, which can only be reached at low tide.
The trees in Bali are high-canopied and airy, buzzing with the constant sound of invisible cicadas. The vegetation is lush and roots snake eerily around many-roofed temples and grotesque statues. The dozens of fruit bats hanging from them may look like something out of a horror film but, up close, the little foxy faces and big brown eyes are delightful.
The Balinese are a spiritual people. Every house, however humble, has its own shrine in the garden, usually beautifully hand-carved. Many of them involve little stone seats for the gods to sit on when they visit; often the statues will be dressed in little “aprons” of cloth and they are even given tiny silk parasols on long poles, decorated with tassels and pompoms to shield them from the rain.
Be careful where you walk – one of the most popular places for tiny, delicate offerings are doorways and entrances – it’s easy to tread on them. They usually consist of three parts – water, incense (representing fire), and flowers for life and death. Often candy or biscuits are left too – the gods have a sweet tooth in Bali.
Even tiny children learn traditional dance at school – and although much of what can be seen is for tourists, there are still many occasions – usually but not always sacred – where dance forms a major part of a traditional ceremony, the dancers sparkling in gold and jewels, moving with grace and agility through centuries-old routines.
It’s impossible not to be charmed by the antics of the temple monkeys at Alas Kedaton Monkey Forest. Tiny babies cling saucer-eyed to their mothers’ fur, teenagers play-fight and the gruff older males scowl at the world in general, hogging the best bananas.
Friendly, open and fun, local people seem genuinely delighted to have foreigners as guests and are not pushy in the way the people of other tourist-based economies are. Although a street vendor will try their luck– trying to sell you a few postcards or a sarong, a polite “no thank you,” will suffice.
The market at Ubud in the lush, leafy hills inland is shopper’s paradise. Jewellery, scarves, fabric and silk wraps drip from every stall, whilst dogs and chickens scuttle around your feet.
The sheer number of small shops and markets can be overwhelming. Entire villages specialise in a particular type of good. One might be full of dyers – with brightly-coloured sarongs and wall hangings displayed from every house. Another might be famous for wood carvings, a third being a village of stonemasons, with gruesome gods and exquisite temple statues being carved by the roadside.
From fabulous carved wooden items to jewel-bright sarongs and wonderful wraparound trousers which would have originally been worn by fishermen through to kites and colourful parasols your suitcase as well as your heart will be full by hometime.
Do pay a visit to the Georgia Bali Café, Jimbaran Bay. One of a parade of Warungs – traditionally-owned family seafood restaurants. Pick out your fish from today’s catch, then relax on the beach while it’s cooked in the ancient fashion over fires made from coconut husks.
For the best prices, if you don’t mind the odd downpour, the low season – December to February – is ideal. The weather is warm, and the rain, though heavy, hardly unpleasant. Most agree that the best possible time to visit is June-July.
This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in Number One magazine. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…